Sailing from Gibraltar to Lisbon, Portugal - Aka Orcas Lane!
Aka Orcas Lane!
Killer Whales! (The Killer Whale term comes from killer of whales)
For those that aren’t sailing in the Mediterranean or if you don’t sail at all you might not be aware that for the last 2-3 years Orcas have been attacking boats and in the case of sailboats destroying their rudders and occasionally even making serious damages to the sail drives leaving the boats a drift and potentially in danger of being dragged by wind and current to rocks etc.
At the moment all damages have not put lives in serious danger and despite the seriousness of the matter authorities have not done anything helpful to tackle the situation.
The attacks have been occurring all the way from the Bay of Biscay nearly al the way to Gibraltar, Moroccan side of the Straits included. At the end of the last sailing season, already well in to Autumn there have been a few attacks all the way to the Canary Islands!
It all started with a couple of individuals but now it seems that due to their highly sociable nature other groups have learned the behaviour.
As it quite easy to imagine, this is like a sailor horror dream that has come true. And although lives have not been at immediate risk (very much because luckily the rescue boats work), the cost of one of these events can rack up many thousands of Euros just on towing fees, not even counting for the repairs.
Currently there’s several theories of what might have triggered the behaviour and none of the scientists that usually monitor these groups as part of their studies knows or can explain the new behaviour or how to make it stop.
First theory was that they were playing with the boats, manipulating the rudders and eventually breaking them. At this point all affected boats were under 15 metres length.
According to the scientists maybe these juveniles that had started the behaviour had learned to play with the bubbles and water stream caused but propellers while their pod was hunting near fishing vessels. A behaviour that had apparently been seen by some researchers.
Second theory was that they associated vessels with completion for their food, and they were defending themselves.
Third theory was that sailboats do look like in terms of shape when seen underwater with whales and other marina mammals that are the main traditional food source of Orcas. The rudder resembling to a tail fin and that just like Orcas do to whales destroying the tail (rudder) immobilises and kills the prey. This theory also cites that more recently the number of Orcas has made a come back from very reduced number of individuals and that this hunting technique is part of their genetic code needing little demonstration from the older individuals part of the pod and therefore maybe a case of not understanding what is a boat or a whale.
More recently and already during our trip we heard a fourth theory told to us by some local sailors to the area of the Gibraltar Straits.
According to them, recently (maybe 5 years ago or so) there was a change on the management of the Almadraba nets in that region.
The Almadrabas are a technique for capturing Tuna during their migration period into the Mediterranean and out of it, that dates back to the Fenithians. These Tuna nets are basically a labyrinth that guides and traps the Tunas (and other fish) into a circular central net, making it impossible for the fish to leave. Once the fish are trapped in these nets the fisherman comes and fishes each individual picking what they want to catch or what is going to be released. In theory this is more environmentally friendly technique it can be argued.
The technique has remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years. Recently with the rise of the Japanese market desire for this Tuna that has one of the best qualities in the world, fisherman have been trapping the Tunas in the nets for longer periods of time instead of fishing them out often. While they keep the Tunas trapped in the net they artificially feed them with the intent to further fattening them to get higher prices for each Tuna. The Japanese on the other hand have now brought their processing vessels and anchor in close proximity of the Almadrabas so that when the Tunas have reached the full size the nets are then emptied and loaded directly. During this fattening period the local fisherman that manage those nets only pick out the Tunas needed to supply the local market.
Basically the local sailors are of the opinion that because the Tunas stay much longer than before in the nets being fed, and also because of the richness of the waters in the area due to the feed given this as changed the behaviour of Orcas because their food is just there outside their reach.
Whatever the reason the created the behaviour this is a huge problem for us.
So we had to change our approach on to how to plan this crossing the Straits, because we are right in the middle of Tuna season.
This was our 6th crossing of the Straits, the 3rd time from East to West.
We have all the info needed for the planning, the tide and current charts, the calculations to choose the best time to do the passage so we get less negative effect (it’s much more difficult to cross from East to West than the opposite, although both directions require careful planning on tides and winds), but now we had this new factor that could spell disaster!
Not only we needed to consider the currents and tide times to avoid having contrary winds, potentially having deal with eddies and whirlpools, keep and eye on fishing pots and the Almadrabas (these are always close to shore), we now had to deal with the totally unpredictability of an Orca attack and the lack of info on what to do to avoid one or when it happens besides the authorities guidance which is pretty much "if you get attack just put yourself in a more vulnerable position by turning off your engine and drop sails and wait for them to destroy all they can while praying that the your boat doesn’t start taking on water and sink or gets on the rocks and sinks. When they finish "playing" call us for a two and we will give you the bill”.
There’s not even an accurate number of how many vessels have been attacked but the numbers of the reported cases are not something to be taken with a light heart.
So we tried to prepare ourselves by reading about others experiences, the ones that managed to stop the attacks, the ones that are now trying to fix their vessels and what experiences exist in other parts of the world that could help.
The only thing that can be considered from other parts of the world is a technique used by some whale/dolphin hunters (Japanese and the Iceland) to herd the individuals into a bay. They use long metal tubes that they hang in the water and bang with a hammer. With the use of several boats doing the same they manage to scare the animals in a desired direction. The same technique is used in Canada but to scare whales, dolphins and Orcas away from oil spills.
A Portuguese guy called Hermínio apparently managed to successfully stop the attack on the catamaran that he was skippering by setting the engines in reverse. This seems to have worked for him because Orcas can’t swim backwards so they can only attack the rudder from the direction where the propeller is (in most vessels the propeller is in front of the rudder but not always), and Or as are smart enough to not even attempt that because they know how dangerous the propeller is (of course the authorities have now forbidden this action because in their mind that might hurt the Orca).
But this manoeuvre can only be attempted in weak winds to no wind and settled sea state. That is not an easy or common situation in the Gibraltar Straits to find together with the right current and tides time!
Two other things that caught our attention were that for the last few weeks all reports of attacks had been in the area of Barbate, the capital of Tuna and where the Almadraba nets are at this time of the year. More specifically the attacks were happening between Trafalgar and Tarifa, while Barbate is between both places. The other thing was that there were a lot less attacks reported amongst yachts that had kept to the shallower areas of the Strait, 15-20 metres of depth and around 1 nautical mile from the coast.
With all this info in hands we started keeping an eye on the weather at the Gibraltar Straits.
To help with a smooth crossing we needed winds coming from East ideally weak winds to allow us to go closer to shore than what we are used to. Days before we even arrived Gibraltar we were already keeping and eye on a two day window opportunity, when the winds should be to our needs.
We arrived Gibraltar in the early hours of the first day of that window, after having kept pushing towards Gibraltar without much wind to assist us and with contrary currents.
We were quite tired, all previous nights had been quite uncomfortable ones as I already explained in the previous blog.
We decided to stay put on that day, taking the opportunity to rest, fuel up The Dream on tax free diesel and also catch up with the latest attack reports.
Late afternoon we witnessed a catamaran of at least 50 feet length being towed in by the Spanish Authorities Search and Rescue boat, to the La Linea marina. Most likely a victim of the Orcas but we cannot confirm.
We calculated our tide and current window for the following day and went to bed early. No alarm needed our window of opportunity for departure was late in the morning.
Day 1 (2022-05-07)
We got up, prepared our coffees and waited for 9.30am for our departure as the tides predicted.
The Gibraltar Rock was covered by the typical cloud that signals a Levante (Easterly winds), as the hours progressed the cloud ran down the rock engulfing the entire bay. From our previous experiences in Gibraltar we knew this meant more wind than the predicted breeze we had seen in the forecast.
We pondered staying put, but the next few days forecasts for sure indicated quite strong Easterly winds and that would mean having to stay for a few days longer, so we decided to push ourselves and get going. The forecast indicated the maximum wind speeds we should get at Tarifa should be 15 knots. We expected 20 knots because we know it always blows more in Tarifa than forecasted.
We decided as precaution not to hoist or open the Jib, although in normal conditions that would give us a crossing of great speeds without much effort, but we didn’t feel comfortable to go as close to shore as we had planned with a potential Levante.
Behind us the crew of a catamaran that had arrived during the night were working on their radar reflector up the mast. We wondered if they were going East or West.
Close to our departure time we decided to up anchor and start moving slowly out of Gibraltar bay, as we passed next to the catamaran we asked what direction we’re they heading and in return we received a G’day (Australian way of saying hi). They or at least the skipper was Australian! They were heading towards the Mediterranean. We wished each other safe travels and we carried on.
We entered the Straits at the right time (3h after high water Gibraltar) and started getting used to be motoring so close to shore with only 20-15 meters depth and less than 1 mile from shore.
As we start seeing Tarifa in the distance the winds started picking up. This was a bit earlier than we had anticipated but not a problem it was helping us from behind, despite we had no sails open.
On AIS we could see a few sailboats coming on the opposite direction. A strange schedule in our opinion because they would be fighting increasing currents and wind over tide.
The winds kept increasing, by now we were already at the maximum wind speeds we had anticipated for the day, 20 knots, but a couple hours earlier, the swell followed suit and by the time we started getting close to Tarifa the waves were already nearly 2 meters high on a very short period of just a couple seconds in between. We were now seriously out of our comfort zone with our positioning in the Strait. It is never nice to be this close to shore and with such depths in such conditions.
The winds kept increasing and by the time we reached Tarifa it was now blowing 35 knots and it would gust up to 38 knots. We could now see the first sailboats coming in our direction, against these winds.
The first was a catamaran coming bare pole (no sails up), the way it was jumping and sinking in between waves was impressive, right behind it was a monohull, an Halberg Rassy around 55ft with a heavily reefed mainsail only, the motion was a punch but nothing compared to what the catamaran was doing. As for us it was just the motion of the waves giving us great surfs down the waves.
Just before we rounded Tarifa Cape the ferry departed port just in front of us at speed. In the opposite direction the ferry coming from the opposite side of the Strait was approaching at great speed. We bared away to allowing him to enter port without having to go around us or any other strange manoeuvre and at the same time allowing us a better angle to overcome the wake he created.
We passed Tarifa hoping for better sea state and weaker winds after the point of tarifa and whilst the sea state improved a bit even if just for a short moment, the wind just kept blowing with the same intensity as before. At the beach we could see all the kite surfers and windsurfers enjoying their day.
We decided not to go inshore of the Almadraba nets as it would require quite a detour and with these conditions the mood was really not in for that with both of us on Orca watch. There was also lots of boats servicing the net inside of it and outside.
We noticed a huge cargo anchored at a very awkward location, too exposed to the swell and wind. We did wondered what the story was, it decided to think that probably they had some sort of issue and anchored there to solve it or wait for assistance. Several Guardia Civil patrol boats passing fast heading to Gibraltar.
We carried on with our strategy, going extremely close to shore, too close for our liking.
Keeping an eye on every wave, every shadow. The stress level was running high, it felt very much as if we were part of Jaws the movie, I could almost hear the music in my head every time I thought about how ridiculous the situation was compared to our previous crossing of these straits.
I could not count the number of times my near went racing at the sight of strange wave breaking, expecting to see the now so feared Orcas.
The parade of catamarans going in the opposite direction in much deeper water continued. Why would any sane person would subject their boats to that amount of punching to the waves with such currents and tides against, not to even to consider the near 40 knot head winds they were experiencing.
As we approached Barbate we considered pushing through but we decided this was becoming a very exhausting day emotionally and that since we were getting considerably worse conditions than we had anticipated a stop in Barbate marina was the best decision.
When entering the bay we saw the huge Almadraba net to our starboard but decided it was too much of a detour to go inshore of these ones. Several fishing boats servicing the net which helped identify it against the sun. Further ahead of us we could see the main Almadraba of Barbate right in front of the harbour, this is the most iconic one I believe due to its shape and position. Next to it another huge cargo ship was anchored. For awhile we wondered if the cargo was sterned to the harbour wall but then we realised it wasn’t.
We made our way to the marina, called them over the phone to confirm they had a spot for us and prepared to enter. Fenders and mooring lines ready and we moved to our spot.
Floating finger pontoons with proper space for us, wow it has been a long time since we docked on a tidal marina!
A neighbour kindly helped us with the mooring lines together with the marinero.
The marina was tiny, but felt very protected and was dirt cheap compared to the Mediterranean prices. A brutal reminder of the rip off business practiced in so many places we’ve been.
As we were talking with our Spanish (and Turkish) neighbours in the marina we shared info, in our case from Turkey where they were going for sailing vacations in two weeks and they shared with us the thoughts of the local sailors regarding the Orca situation (the fourth theory I explain at the top of this post). The conversation was so happy that we got invited to join them for dinner at what they said was the best Tuna restaurant in the world, if we didn’t mind a 15minute walk to town. We of course accepted the invitation.
The restaurant was indeed as good as they promised, the Tuna was just mind blowing. We would never had found this restaurant by ourselves in such a short stay.
Day 2 (2022-05-08)
The day started with the realisation it was Sunday and therefore the marinero would only come to duty much later in the morning and we needed to retrieve the deposit money for the card key. Luckily we spotted a car coming in with a guy with a uniform that looked like the marinero and it turned out that the guy was parking his car to go for coffee before starting to work. He kindly help us with the deposit and card key before his shift.
We departed the marina passing behind the Almadraba net towards west.
The sea was much more settled allowing us to proceed with the plan of carrying our journey through shallow waters much easier. We kept to depths of 10-15 meters.
We passed the Trafalgar shallows without any stressful moments although the depths at times were around 5 meters only!
Quite a few boats passed us going the opposite, all of them would be passing the most critical area (Trafalgar to Tarifa) at the peak of tide and current against and with Levante winds on the nose.
Being a Sunday we noticed a few more boats sailing very close to shore in the Cadiz area, no one venturing further out to sea. Quite a few Guardia Civil patrol boats running up and down the coast.
The trip from Barbate to Cadiz was a short one and we progressed at a good relaxing pace, by the time we approached Cadiz it was still quite early in the day and although our plan was to stop near Porto Sherry and have a relaxing afternoon we decided to keep going and make it to Chipiona or to the Guadalquivir river entrance where we could anchor. This would allow us to have a shorter travelling day and arrive Culatra possibly in time of high water the next day.
We arrived Chipiona late in the afternoon, we dodged the sailing school little boats and the hobby cats that were out for the day and tried to anchor next to the marina entrance to get some protection of the southerly swell.
It took us two attempts (on our first attempt we were too close to a shallow area at low water while on the second attempt we noticed an abandoned mooring just below the surface that could give us trouble) to be kind of anchored. It wasn’t a brilliant anchorage but there was little no wind in all the forecast models so we accepted our predicament and put on an anchor alarm just in case.
Day 3 (2022-05-09)
We woke up with the wash caused by the fishing boats leaving harbour, we took their cue and lifted anchor also. As we were moving further westwards we kept seeing fishing fleets coming out of all the little villages along the adjoining bays of Cadiz.
Although we had already passed safely the critical area for the Orca attacks during the May season there we were still feeling a bit uneasy, after all who could guarantee that we wouldn’t encounter them here, so the thought of having all these fishing fleets so close to us was somehow calming. Usually we would be quite annoyed with their presence but we were sailing between their fishing grounds and shore so even the fact that we could still hear their engines when they were almost out of our sight was quite appeasing. The downside of going in this area where it’s still reasonably shallow was that it seemed we were playing dodge with the fishing pots (actually these are called Espinheis and are a common fishing technique in the Portuguese coast, each flag is what we usually call fishing pot is actually just one vertical point or mooring of a continuous string with hooks or a bottom net) and we needed to keep an extremely active look out! We probably passed a hundred of these dangerous (to navigation) traps.
Around lunchtime we finally entered Portuguese waters and it felt like the long trip was coming to an end, we could finally get ready to relax and let our guard down. That’s when two sneaky dolphins gave us a big fright surfacing just like an Orca would do in our mind. It felt like we were in Jaws movie for real but they instead of surfacing again like they did before, they decided to show their true colours as if they knew how fast they had our hearts racing!
A couple of hours later we reached the entrance of the Ria Formosa (Formosa marshes) that gives access to Faro town and where we would stay at anchor for a couple of days. We arrived as planned at high water ensuring we could safely navigate the channel without too much stress.
Passing the bar and the breakwater that protects the marshes entrance was a new experience to us.
The swell was still present about 1.5m, the sun getting ready for a sunset in front of us, more fishing pots right across the entrance from the direction we were coming from and several little tinnies (small boats) fishing right in the actual entrance.
Somehow we managed to navigate all these challenges and find our spot in the anchorage at a spot called “Ilha da Culatra” just in time for the sunset.
Now we could enjoy a bit of rest.
The following days would see the sea state increase as the Levante blew stronger and we would explore the amazing place that Culatra is.
Day 4 (2020-05-13)
After a couple of days in Faro at the anchorage in Ilha da Culatra it was time to head further north towards Lisbon.
We lifted anchor around high tide in the morning and left the anchorage at the same time as many other boats, we turned west after exiting the breakwater, they all turned East. Most likely they would be making way towards Gibraltar and the Mediterranean.
The forecast still showed Levante winds (coming from East).
The swell caused by the Levante was still quite strong, stronger even than on the day that we arrived.
Passing the bar was a roller coaster like we are not used too but nothing The Dream could not handle and all is fine.
Shortly after we got out of that uncomfortable swell and gained distance from shore my mum called, both my mum and nana had just tested positive to Covid, it would be at least week until she could come to Lisbon to meet us with the car and help with moving from the boat to the house while we hauled out The Dream.
With this news we quickly changed our plans for a Lisbon arrival, and we diverted to Vilamoura marina to go check in before heading to Portimão.
We had to wait for hours to be able to check in and only arrived Portimão mid afternoon.
Once again we passed the breakwater and found a spot in the entrance anchorage.
For the next few days we would enjoy meeting up with a few new Kiwis and a sailor friend we had met way back in 2018 in the Balearics and we had not seen since.
Day 5 (2022-05-15&16)
On Monday the wind finally turned in our favour so it was time to go the plan for the day was to go to Sines about 80 miles up the coast and a good stint up towards Lisbon. The idea was once again to split the journey in two smaller trips.
We left Portimão quite early in the morning, swell had already subsided making our journey towards the the Point of Sagres and Cape St Vincente a quiet one had it not been the pesky fishing pots everywhere.
The sight of these two geographical features was a special one, this would be our 6th time passing them and they have always been moments we treasured and feared equally.
Mid afternoon we checked the updated weather forecast and started having second thoughts regarding the anchorage in Sines. Our fear was that with the swell direction forecasted the anchorage could potentially become quite bad.
As we started coming closer to Sines we started seeing the swell growing and it was indeed already quite close to the height indicated on the forecast for the night, 2 metres plus from west to south west because there was still some residual swell from the wind we experienced during the day.
The forecast also said the swell would further increase during the night and would remain big in excess of 2 Metres for the next few days coming from west but without much wind (a weather system in the mid Atlantic was causing this swell) Not only this had the potential of giving us a very uncomfortable night but also without wind on the following day the the journey north would be a bit of challenge.
As we were already passing in front of Sines (at 7.50 pm) and already having dinner we spotted the blow (the spout that comes from marine mammals blowholes when they surface) and breaching from a marine mammal, it was way too big to be from a dolphin so we grabbed the binoculars and to our panic we confirmed it was Orcas. Maybe 6 of them!
They were about 200 metres away.
Moment of panic, were they Orcas or just big dolphins? Two more sightings with the binoculars confirmed they were Orcas coming in our direction although I chose to believe at that moment that they were dolphins!
We immediately dropped the Mainsail, grabbed our lifejackets and tethers, clipped Ella on a short tether by the companion way so she was safer at a low level and prepared to throw the engine in reverse and disengage the autopilot.
From what we saw, it look maybe like a juvenile started coming in our direction (it came probably to 100 metres from our stern) while the main group seemed to have kept the direction towards Sines.
We were in the 200 metres depth contour and well away from shore at around 20 miles.
The juvenile ended up changing its direction and went back to the main group.
Our hearts were running fast. Would they come back?
We decided there and then we were going to make it to Cascais that night without delay.
We finished eating dinner, John went to rest while I kept on watch nearly until we reached Cape Espichel just south of Lisbon where we came onto the shallows again and we had to navigate the bloody fishing pots in the dark!
We arrived Cascais quite late in the night but we are quite familiar with the area (it’s the town I was born in) so the approach was not difficult with the exception of passing the two large cargo vessels at anchor on the approach while navigating the small fishing boats going erratically some without or very dimmed lights in the early morning.
Finally we dropped anchor in 6m of water just outside the Cascais marina at 5am, now time to rest and sleep.
***In the spirit of sharing our dreams and experiences we have shared this blog post in the NOFOREIGNLAND.COM website sailors community.